In 2012, the San Francisco 49ers got to within four points of a Super Bowl victory with an offense that was equal parts modern and smash-mouth. By marrying option and pistol plays to power/counter/trap blocking concepts that have been bedeviling NFL defenses since Vince Lombardi was drawing them up, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman put together a plan that could just as easily beat opponents into submission as it could win with schematic advantage.
While the 2013 49ers' offense has been locked in a bit of a quagmire so far, those ideas -- which Harbaugh and Roman refined during their time at Stanford -- are thriving in Indianapolis, where new Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has drawn up many of the same ideas he learned as Stanford's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (and Roman's replacement) in 2011 and 2012. And since he had Andrew Luck for that first season, it's easy enough for Luck to take what he's learned in the NFL and weld it to those older lessons.
In Luck's first NFL season, then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians preferred a higher risk/reward system that allowed for big plays and the occasional big mistake. Luck attempted 101 passes in which the primary target was 20 or more yards downfield in 2012, most in the NFL. He also faced more "pressure plays" -- 268 -- than any other quarterback.
Through four games under Hamilton, things are somewhat different. Luck has attempted just 18 passes of 20 or more yards in the air -- Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with 27. However, he's faced pressure on 63 of his 150 dropbacks, which is actually a higher percentage (42.0) than last year's 38.1 percent. That's a product of Indy's relatively weak offensive line, but one thing that's working better than last season is the Colts' running game.
The Colts rank second, behind only the Philadelphia Eagles, in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics when it comes to overall rushing efficiency -- they ranked 18th last year. Indianapolis ranked 28th in FO's Adjusted Line Yards metric (overall run-blocking efficiency) in 2012, and they're second behind the Green Bay Packers this season. This despite a running back rotation that has been patchwork at best. Vick Ballard is out for the season with a torn right ACL, Ahmad Bradshaw is currently doubtful for the Colts' Week 5 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks due to a neck injury, and the recently-acquired Trent Richardson is still getting the hang of things. Still, this run game rolls along, and it was never more present than when the Colts beat the San Francisco 49ers, 27-7 on Sept. 22. They put up 184 total rushing yards on San Francsico's stout defense, and that's the way this team wants to play over the long term.
"Absolutely," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said after that win. "Every game is going to be different, and we are built and wired the right way to be able to pound it when we need to pound it. And if we need to throw it, obviously we have the best in the business under center that can throw it and spread the ball around. We have playmakers all over the place. The way those backs ran. The way that the offensive line blocked, the tight ends, the fullbacks, it was truly a heavyweight fight. I am really proud of our guys.”
Richardson, Bradshaw, and Luck all scored rushing touchdowns in this game, and Luck's six-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter was set up to a degree by Bradshaw's eight-yard run to the San Francisco five-yard line two plays before. This was a great example of a power offense lulling a defense to sleep with certain concepts, and then flipping the script.
The Colts went heavy with an extra offensive lineman (guard Joe Reitz) to the left, and at the snap, Luck handed off to Bradshaw, who bulled through a gap opened by Reitz, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, and tight end Dominique Jones. The 49ers loaded their defense to that side, and the Colts indulged defensive coordinator Vic Fangio by blasting through. The key block, however, came from right guard Jeff Linkenbach, who pulled all the way over to left end to seal the inside for Bradshaw. These multi-gap guard pulls have been a staple at Stanford for a long time -- current Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro ran them for the Cardinal as well as anyone you'll ever see. Linkenbach operated it to perfection here.
So, for Luck's touchdown run two plays later, the Colts put their extra lineman on the right side, with fullback Stanley Havili replacing Jones as the satellite blocker. You'll see this with the Cardinal and definitely with the 49ers, who love to roll fullback Bruce Miller all over the formation. This was pure gap power, and the addition of Bradshaw and Havili as potential rushing threats sent the 49ers' linebackers to all the wrong spots at the snap. Linebacker Michael Wilhoite came up in a blitz look to the right A-gap, and linebacker NaVorro Bowman was a step late to deal with Luck because he was spying Bradshaw and insuring that the middle of the defense was covered against a power run game that had announced its presence with authority.
“Anytime you have success running the ball -- lead schemes, power schemes, zone schemes, gap schemes, whatever it is, and everybody is loading the box and keying in on the two backs, it was a brilliant call by Pep and great execution," Luck said after the game. "We’ve talked about execution and preparation. If you take care of the cents, the dollars will come. All we talk about is process and doing the little things. We talk about execution. A great call again by Pep and great execution by our quarterback.”
Luck told me on Wednesday that it also helps his play-action game.
"It's great to have the run game get going -- it's not where everybody wants it to be yet, but we'll still work to try to get to that point," he said. "It does help the passing game when you can tire the big [defensive] guys out, and work play action off of it and have a mix. Pep's done a great job of bringing that vision, and Coach Pagano's vision is the same thing -- you've got to be able to run the ball, and the defense has to be able to stop the run. Pep's instilled that, and we've all bought in, and it's fun to be a part of it."
The primary difference between the Colts' version of the "Stanford offense" and what the 49ers run is that the Colts ask so much more of Luck than the 49ers ask of Colin Kaepernick, and Luck is able to deliver. That's less a knock on Kaepernick and more an affirmation of the fact that Luck is able to handle more than your average young quarterback. And when the Colts do run play-action, one of their favorite concepts is to line speedy young receiver T.Y. Hilton outside veteran Reggie Wayne in the slot. At the snap, you'll see Hilton take the top off and work at least one safety, while Wayne owns the middle of the field behind linebackers that have been frozen by the fakes. This first-quarter play last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars provides a blueprint.
Hilton motions from outside the numbers to just inside Wayne in a stack look. At the snap, Hilton drives from one seam to another, grabbing strong safety Johnathan Cyprien on his way. Free safety Josh Evans starts to double up on Hilton, and recovers to Wayne a bit too late. Because of the delayed fake to Richardson, Jacksonville commits all three linebackers -- Geno Hayes, Paul Posluszny, and Russell Allen -- to the short middle. Allen actually bails out of a blitz look to curl/flat coverage responsibility because the Jags have been trained (perhaps overtrained) to respect Indy's backs, who are both extending to short routes. Luck has the velocity and timing to line it up perfectly with Wayne, and that's exactly what he does. Add in tight end Coby Fleener's route on the other side, and you can see why this concept is effective at every level. If you run a lot of Cover-2 as the Jags do, the Colts will beat you to death with this stuff.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll runs a more multi-faceted defense, but he's more than aware of this new Colts offense and the challenges it presents.
"There's not much resemblance in the running game -- in the throwing game, there is some," Carroll said Wednesday, when I asked him how similar the Colts and 49ers offenses are. They're more basic -- the 49ers do a lot of wacky stuff with these interesting styles of runs. These guys are more standardized in what they're doing -- they're trying to come downhill with the power play that they run. But there's more reliance on the drop-back passing game."
And that goes back to Luck as the fulcrum of the offense.
"I didn't study him as much last year; just watched him more," Carroll said. "Judging now from what they're asking of him, he's doing everything. They have as much confidence in him as you can have. Of course, Pep goes way back with him, and he's known him for a long time, so he didn't have to be convinced. He's running a lot of the game at the line of scrimmage, he's got a number of plays he can call to fit the defense, and that's because he's so smart and has such a command of the system. I don't really know that they did that last year, but they certainly are now."